“Evidently no-one likes a quitter or an old punk’s bitterness,” sang NOFX frontman Fat Mike in 2004, when in his mid-thirties. The punk legend was even back then self-consciously poking fun at the image of the bleached-dyed mohawk-sporting punk in the face of encroaching middle-age. These days he may well not object to the label of “old punk” himself, but in the wake of his band’s newest release, entitled Single Album, with its frank, resigned, and bleak but caustically funny tone, we may well ask the question of how we ought to view artists of ‘rebellious’ genres as they and their music age.
The record opens with the striking ’The Big Drag’, a pessimistic opening note to say the least, where frontman Fat Mike cogitates over death and his deceased colleague in the music scene over a slow, grungy, gravelly backing. However, one gets the impression that this is a tease from a man who has always enjoyed making people uncomfortable with facetious bleakness. This darkness of the opening track sets the album up; you sense that the whimsy and humour about death and decline set to jaunty melodies is a defiant reaction in the face of the wistful morbidity of the opening. ‘Birmingham’ is a song that encapsulates this well. The earworm melody is happy and bright, but the lyrics a sort of soliloquy where Mike seemingly comes to realisations before the listeners’ ears about the patterns underlying his destructive habits. However, the song is not an intervention, but a glib self-assessment at the end of which Mike boasts that he likely will never stop. The sense of embracing the darkness emanates throughout the album; whether it is embracing mortality or one’s own dark side, it is in joyous Epicurean style.
It is often that you hear refrains saying “punk isn’t dead!” but that is hard to defend when artists are still peddling the same maxims of teenage rebellion in their fifties. Ultimately the line in this article’s opening sums it up well:
“No-one likes a quitter…”
…indeed, the punk who sells their music to record companies and retires to a mansion at the top of the hill is reviled as a sell-out. In fact, NOFX parodied this very idea in their song Mattersville off their War on Errorism album.
“…or an old punk’s bitterness…”
…yet the hackneyed slogans of teenage angst coming from a grey-bearded rocker seems – unsurprisingly – strained. After all, there is a reason that fellow California punk stalwarts Descendents, who these days are all fathers, no longer include on their setlists 1982’s Parents, the hook of which runs: “Parents / Why won’t they shut up? / Parents / They’re so f*cked up”.
“Rebellion” has become a tokenised word and concept in much of popular music, and moreover rebellion gets crystalized in the common psyche in its past forms, often at the expense of acknowledging its modern tensions and inconsistencies. John Lydon of the Sex Pistols now is only seen wearing MAGA hats and bands from Britain’s most genuinely countercultural subset of the 70s and 80s punk movement, skinheads and Oi! Bands, now seemingly represent reactionary nativist politics. Mainstays of the original skinhead movement, Oi! band The 4 Skins have had their share of detractors for reactionary views they have expressed post their disbandment. A band who brought out such thrilling anti-authority and anti-government songs like ‘ACAB’ and ‘One Law for them (Another One for us)’ now represent a far less liberal set of ideas. Well, I suppose we all remember how the phrase “anti-establishment” was co-opted by a …certain right-wing political movement in 2016 – but anyway…
To return to NOFX, I don’t think it’s likely that their cross-dressing BDSM enthusiast lead-singer will be called a reactionary by anyone any time soon. But the metamorphosis of old punks like Lydon, The 4 Skins, and Misfits’ Glenn Danzig is seemingly a symptom of overstretching the cliches of teenage rebellion too far into middle (an old) age, of which many bands are guilty. NOFX haven’t fallen into this trap. Their sense of rebellion has taken on a refreshing perspective, sung through the eyes of a man who – in the most life-affirming way possible – is resigned to oblivion and his incongruity with certain aspects of modern culture. The stark and discomforting effect of the lyrics on ‘My Bro Cancervive Cancer’ and ‘Grieve Soto’ is a type of stylistic rebellion achieved through jarring juxtaposition between lyrical tone and musical tonality. Single Album hands you a plate of pessimism, wanting to see what you will do with it. But if there is such a thing as jaunty pessimism, NOFX have mastered it. Rather than explicit anti-establishmentism it is the liberty to make the audience uncomfortable that affirms NOFX’s individualism and anti-conformity. The album is personal, funny, and what a relief it is to say that NOFX, in not trying to marry trite teenage angst with “an old punk’s bitterness”, have avoided the trap which has ensnared many artists in the past.